Student and professor conduct research in Africa

How do AIDS and poverty interact?

Gettysburg College senior Atlang Mompe and economics Prof. Eileen Stillwaggon sought answers in Botswana. Theirs was one of many student-faculty collaborative research projects supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.

I have a passion to help my nation with this problem,” said Mompe, a citizen of Botswana and an undergraduate fellow of Gettysburg College's Eisenhower Institute.

Behavior alone cannot explain HIV infection rates that are up to 25 times higher in sub-Saharan Africa than in wealthy nations, said Stillwaggon, especially when North Americans and Europeans exhibit higher rates of most risky sexual behaviors.

“For nearly ten years now, I’ve been looking at the HIV epidemic as we would at any other infectious disease,” said Stillwaggon, author of AIDS and the Ecology of Poverty (Oxford University Press, USA, 2006). “Why do poor people have higher rates of every disease? They live with bad water, poor housing, poor medical care, and no sanitation systems. In some areas, 100 percent of children are carrying parasitic worms. That has to have an effect on the immune system. And a person with malaria can have ten times the viral load of HIV in their blood than someone without it. The medical literature indicates that illnesses like these increase the transmission of AIDS by making an HIV-negative person more vulnerable and an HIV-infected person more contagious.”

Botswana was an excellent site for research because of its long commitment to providing anti-retroviral drugs to all who need them and the resulting wealth of information from some 850 medical facilities across the nation.

Mompe played a crucial role in obtaining the data, Stillwaggon said. The political science major initiated contact with and earned the confidence of high health ministry officials, who made sure that the precious computer discs made it into her hands. The process took time, but Stillwaggon said Mompe made the most of it by working as an intern with the Botswana/Harvard Partnerships, a program of the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative for HIV Research and Education.

Stillwaggon said the experience provided Mompe with “an excellent education in the real world of research” and allowed her to make valuable connections in what may be her career field. “She is dedicated to helping to solve problems in her country,” Stillwaggon said. “The Mellon Foundation couldn’t have put its money to better use.”

“This project was a stepping stone for me,” said Mompe, who hopes to become a diplomat. “I made great connections for the future and I got to do something worthwhile for my country.”

Mompe, who was active in raising AIDS awareness in high school, said she really connected with Stillwaggon in her first-year seminar “Understanding AIDS.” Being able to expand that connection into real research in her homeland “is one of the highlights of my Gettysburg experience,” Mompe said. “It was two worlds merging together.” The Botswana trip took place the summer before Mompe's sophomore year.

The Mellon Foundation has provided generous support for collaborative summer research by Gettysburg College students and faculty. Undergraduate research and creative activity are a major priority for the College, which is committed to helping students earn major fellowships and scholarships.

Mompe and Stillwaggon's project was also partially underwritten by a generous gift in support of travel for academic purposes by 1979 Gettysburg College graduate Andrew Parker.

Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences. With a student body of approximately 2,500, it is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania. The college was founded in 1832.

Contact: Jim Hale, online content editor

Posted: Thu, 11 Jun 2009

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